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Joint Armed Forces Officers' Wives' Luncheon
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Bolling Air Force Base, Maryland, Friday, June 26, 2009

Well, thank you for that introduction.  And my thanks to the luncheon committee for inviting me to spend some time with all of you today.  I’m very grateful to receive the National Military Family Association’s award – a little belatedly.  The N.M.F.A. is a faithful helper to our service men and women and their loved ones, wherever they may be, whether it's:

·         Running “Operation Purple,” a free camp program for military kids that operates in 37 states and territories; or

·         Providing tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships to military spouses each year; or

·         Offering career development advice – in particular, awarding military spouses with fellowships to gain accreditation as financial counselors.

 So I'm very honored to be associated with you all.  And I would say also that the list of your past luncheon speakers is quiet impressive.  I’ll do my best to meet the high mark you’ve already set.

            One person I will not be able to equal is the late humorist Art Buchwald, your very first speaker and in a way, accidental founder – since it was he who urged that the several organizations be consolidated into what became the Joint Armed Forces Officers’ Wives’ Luncheon in 1977.  He returned as the JAFOWL keynoter a dozen years later, no doubt to celebrate with you the success of his chance creation.

            I always appreciated Buchwald’s ability to make fun of Washington.  I have been known to do a bit of that myself from time to time, but I can’t improve on the best of Buchwald.  The Congress did not escape his wit.  He said, “I always wanted to get into politics, but I was never light enough to make the team.”  The lobbyists received attention as well; he said they're “just like you and me – they put on their golf shoes one foot at a time.”  Presidents were fair game, too.  Richard Nixon, for whom I worked, among others, and who was great material for political humorists, prompted Buchwald to say:  “I worship the quicksand he walks in.”

            As a pundit Buchwald was in demand around this town.  Military groups like this, though, had a special claim on him because he was a veteran.  And a proud one. A high schooler when the Second World War broke out, he ran away to join the Marines.  As he put it: “My father was the Marine Corps.  It was everything.”

            We have been fortunate enough throughout our history to find men and women like him to serve our nation and defend it.  And today, as America fights two wars, we have seen – have the most skilled armed forces that have ever been assembled.  Buchwald was part of the “Greatest Generation.”  Today’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, coastguardsmen, Marines – volunteers all – are rightly being called the “new Greatest Generation.”

            The nation is currently engaged in the longest war with all-volunteer forces since the War of the Revolution.  A higher percentage of moms and dads are serving in this conflict than in any time in recent history.  More than 40 percent of the military are parents and over 230,000 children have a mother or father at war.  A generation of kids has had a parent deployed for war at least once – if not many times.  A Pentagon survey earlier this year of over 13,000 spouses of active-duty service members recently found that the children most affected by deployments were between the ages of six and 13.  The empty seat at the dinner table night after night is a constant reminder of a child’s worry for the safety of his or her parents.  And there is also the grief and the heartbreak when a loved one is injured or killed. 

Even in peacetime, military kids face special circumstances, such as moving every time mom or dad gets a new assignment.  But these parents appreciate that their service today will pay dividends tomorrow.  When the nation calls them to difficult and dangerous places, they answer that call knowing that what they do protects the loved ones that they’ve left behind. And perhaps the children understand this fact the best.  Said one teenager whose dad was deployed with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan:  “My father doesn’t do an everyday job.”

And kids in families like these are not everyday kids.  We must ensure that they get the best possible education.  Last year, the Departments of Defense and Education signed an agreement to ease the strain on families as overseas units move back home in accordance with the Base [Re]alignment and Closure Act.  The agreement will help military children make smoother transitions between schools and will teach them coping skills to deal with the stress of deployed parents.  This effort is the culmination of years of informal partnering between the two departments.

Likewise, I applaud the governors who have joined the “Interstate Compact on Education Opportunity for Military Children.”  This compact, now signed into law in 20 states, eases school transitions for military kids by standardizing records transfers, course placement, and graduation requirements, among other things.

Those who fight for us deserve every effort we can possibly make on their behalf.  Over the years, government action such as the creation of the Veterans’ Administration, G.I. Bill, and the establishment of a military health system has made an enormous difference.  But there is still a huge amount to do. 

Major new provisions have been added to the G.I. Bill, for the first time since 1984.  You are probably aware of the increased benefits.  Now these may be passed on to a spouse or child if troops opt not to use them.  I first heard of this idea of transferring G.I. education benefits during a meeting I had with military spouses at Fort Hood.  One spouse asked about the possibility, and I thought it sounded like a good idea and passed along the concept.  Thanks to the support of President Bush and Congress, the changes were signed into law last July and come into effect this August.  As the former chairman of the board of N.M.F.A., Nancy Alsheimer, put it: “Transferring benefits is good for the family, but also good for the military as a retention tool and quality-of-life improvement.”

Last year, the Departments of Defense and Labor launched the Military Spouse Career Advancement Initiative.  More than 35 million dollars was invested in projects – the project’s initial demonstration phase, and included 18 military installations in eight key states. It will help military spouses obtain the professional training, licenses, and certificates they need to have high-growth, portable careers in fields such as technology and health care.

You may or may not have heard about President Obama’s budget request for the Defense Department.  It entails big changes in terms of how the department operates.  But one of the most important things we did was to enhance and institutionalize support of troops and their families fighting in the current wars – to see that these programs have a bureaucratic home and sustained, long-term funding.  Our all-volunteer force represents the United States’ greatest strategic asset.  We must reorient in this direction because, as Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says, if we don’t get the people part of our business right, none of the other decisions matter.

There is no “people” issue more critical than taking care of our wounded warriors – and that is my highest priority after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The problems we have had in this area come in part from the fact that well-intentioned individuals have been stymied by the frustrating bureaucratic complications endemic to huge organizations.  No doubt you’ve struggled with military bureaucracy over the course of your service as spouses.  It’s been that way for a long time.  It has been rumored that during the Civil War, red tape was used to bind the personnel records of soldiers.  And clerks literally had to cut through the red tape to gain access to the soldier’s records, which gave birth to that unfortunate term we’re all familiar with.  One example of a reform to help overcome these hurdles is the Army’s “Warrior Transition Units,” where coordinators are assigned to make it easier for the troops and their families as they transition through each phase of the military medical system.

And, as you know, we are doing battle with the ages-old stigmatizing of combat-related stress and other psychological ailments – those unseen wounds that are taking such a toll on our troops and on their families.

The last point I’d like to address is the strain on the force, especially ground forces that have borne the human and material brunt of the current wars.  I’ve visited a number of military installations over the past two-and-a-half years.  It is a difficult thing to look a family member in the eye whose spouse or father or son or daughter is being deployed again – sometimes on a second or third tour.  Or even more.  And it is harder to do with the families of those who have been killed or wounded.

There are metrics that we need to watch – such as the waivers granted to new recruits, a troubling rise of suicides in the Army, and the incidence of divorce and other signs of wear on military families.  There are a number of measures underway that are designed to ease the strain on the small proportion of the American people who have borne the burden of these conflicts.  And I hope and trust these changes will make a difference.

I know one thing that has been a great source of support and comfort and inspiration has been the public support for our forces that we have seen.  Our military is not alone – the American people are with them.  Organizations such as yours have seen to this and – speaking as someone who began his career during the early part of the Vietnam era – it marks an amazing and wonderful change for our country.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine from Texas A&M told me he had been waiting for a flight at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.  A man ran into the waiting area and said that a planeload of troops from Afghanistan were arriving on the level below. Virtually everyone there – hundreds of people waiting for their flights – ran down the stairs to applaud the service members as they entered the terminal.  This is the kind of thing one sees in towns and cities all across this country.  The appreciation is real, it is sincere, and it bridges any political divide.  Our men and women in uniform – our heroes – deserve no less.

So my thanks once more for this honor and for all that you do for the “new Greatest Generation” and the families who serve and sacrifice with them.

Thank you.